The German Airborne Descent on Crete II



The British defenders of Crete, whose outriders had arrived far ahead of the despatch of ground troops to the mainland in April, had quickly recognised the danger of a German airborne landing; Brigadier Tidbury, appointed commander of British troops on Crete on 3 November 1940, identified the four parachute dropping zones (DZ) the Germans would use in May as early as that December. All were either close to the three small airfields at Maleme, Rethymno and Heraklion or on the narrow north coastal plain near Canea, the capital. The geography of Crete confines any military operations to the north; the island, though 160 miles long, west to east, is only 40 miles at its widest, and steep mountain ridges, cut by rocky defiles, bar easy access to the south. It is a harsh landscape, though dotted with olive groves and the occasional little fields, and the people, hardy and frugal in their daily habits, were fiercely independent. Disorder always seethed in the highlands, as did internecine conflict.

Had the 5th Cretan Division not been far away on the mainland in 1940, the Germans would not have been able to capture the island. ‘If only the Division were here’ was a phrase heard on every Cretan’s lips throughout the battle. Ten thousand trained young Cretans would certainly have overcome the invaders, warriorlike though they were themselves. As it was, the Greek defenders consisted mainly of non-Cretan refugees from the débâcle on the mainland, and some locals too old or young for regular military service, about 9,000 altogether, hastily formed into eight regiments; often lacking uniforms, many were to be shot by the Germans as unlawful irregulars. The British garrison, positioned before the German campaign in the Balkans began, consisted of 14 Infantry Brigade, containing three regular pre-war battalions, 1st Welch, 2nd Black Watch and 2nd York and Lancaster; they were to be joined later from Egypt by the 2nd Leicesters and the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In the aftermath of the withdrawal from Greece large numbers of Australian and New Zealand troops also arrived on the island, largely lacking their heavy weapons and badly disorganised by the ordeal of the retreat from the northern Greek frontier. They belonged to the 2nd New Zealand Division and the 6th Australian Division; the British units which had escaped from Greece were a miscellaneous collection of regular cavalry, yeomanry, Territorial infantry, Royal Marines and artillery, with few tanks or guns. The Royal Air Force had only five aircraft. The best of the survivors, who numbered 27,000 in all, were the New Zealanders, famously competent soldiers under the command of General Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealand Victoria Cross winner of the Great War. He would assume command of the whole of Creforce on his arrival from the mainland.

As the units became available, during their chaotic arrival from Greece in early May, Freyberg dispersed them as follows: the 2nd New Zealand Division, of nine battalions, around Maleme airfield and to the western end of the island, together with three Greek regiments, the British 3rd Hussars (seven tanks) and the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (two tanks); around Suda, the main northern port, the marines, four Australian battalions, the 7th Royal Tank Regiment (two tanks), two Greek regiments and a force of Cretan gendarmerie; at the eastern end of the island, around Heraklion, four regular British infantry battalions, Black Watch, Leicesters, York and Lancaster, Argylls, an Australian battalion, ten tanks of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment and 3rd Hussars, some artillery and two Greek regiments.

Freyberg had arrived in Crete from Greece only on 29 April and did not expect to stay. He was anxious to go on to Egypt and reconstitute the New Zealand Expeditionary Corps. Churchill, however, had decided that he must command in Crete, which he had determined to hold. Freyberg was a favourite of his. He admired brave men inordinately and Freyberg, whom he knew of old, was exceptionally brave. His body bore the marks of twenty-seven wounds. Even before winning the Victoria Cross on the Somme, he had gained a wide reputation in the army for swimming the Hellespont to place guiding-lights on shore before the Gallipoli landings. Freyberg also had the common touch. Ordinary soldiers, British and Australian alike, admired him; to his own New Zealanders he was, of course, a national hero. Physically very large, outgoing in manner and quite without pomposity, Freyberg was a soldiers’ general. They knew his mind. When he said, ‘Go for them with the bayonet’, they knew he would do exactly that if he got the chance.

He set up his headquarters in a quarry above Suda Bay, near Canea, as soon as appointed commander of Creforce. In a cave in the quarry his special intelligence officer, Captain Sandover, decrypted the Enigma intercepts – code-named OL (Orange Leonard) after a mythical agent – showed them to Freyberg and then burnt them. Sandover was a member of an exiguous staff. General Weston, the Royal Marine over whose head Freyberg had been appointed, resented his supersession and kept his own subordinates by him. As a result, Freyberg had to scratch to find functionaries. There was, anyhow, a notable shortage of trained staff officers, signallers and even wireless sets available to him. On Crete, an island requiring for efficient military purposes good local and telegraphic communications, but deficient in both, Creforce was hampered from the start.

Yet, simultaneously, it enjoyed almost an embarrassment of intelligence riches. Because Operation Merkur was confided to the Luftwaffe, in descending order of responsibility to the IV Air Fleet, the VII and XI Air Corps and the 7th Parachute Division, and because Bletchley, though still struggling with the German army and navy Enigma transmissions, could read the Luftwaffe traffic in real time, very exact warning of the German plans was sent to Creforce well before the operation began.

Warnings of the coming airborne descent on Crete were sent to Freyberg, routed via Cairo, as early as 1 May. The first extensive description of the operation was sent on 5 May. It stated that German preparations would be complete on the 17th and that landings by the 7th Fliegerdivission (parachutists) and the corps troops of XI Fliegerkorps (glider) would be diverted against Maleme, Candia (Heraklion) and Retimo (Rethymno). Bomber and fighter units would then attack Maleme and Candia. Other army units were allotted, apparently to be carried by sea transport. On 7 May an Enigma decrypt clarified the previous signal, suggesting that ‘three mountain regiments more likely than third mountain regiment’. As we now know, the reference was to the decision to attach a regiment of 6th Mountain Division to 5th Mountain Division, all to be air-landed. As the accompanying army division was originally chosen to be 22nd Air-Landing Division, Freyberg’s staff concluded that 5th Mountain Division was to come by sea, not by transport aircraft.

The Enigma decrypts correctly conveyed German intentions, which were to attack Crete with a parachute division (7th Flieger), the glider troops of XI Air Corps (the Assault Regiment) and an army division, initially the 22nd, for which the 5th Mountain was later substituted, reinforced by a regiment from the 6th Mountain Division, which were to be flown in by transport aircraft. The substitution of 5th for 22nd Division, and the references to sea transport, succeeded in confusing, disastrously, Freyberg’s appreciation of the threat he faced.

The crucial summary of the key Enigma decrypts (OL 2/302) was sent to Freyberg’s headquarters on 13 May, at 5.45 p.m. The picture of operations it gave was as follows: the operation would be launched on 17 May (later amended to the 20th). On day one the parachute division would seize Maleme, Candia and Retimo. Secondly, arrival of fighters and bombers on Cretan airfields. Thirdly, air-landing (by glider and transport aircraft) of glider troops and army units carried by transport aircraft. Finally, arrival of seaborne units consisting of anti-aircraft batteries as well as more troops and supplies.

In addition, 12th Army will allot three Mountain Regiments as instructed. Further elements consisting of motor-cyclists, armoured units, anti-tank units, anti-aircraft units will also be allotted . . . Transport aircraft, of which a sufficient number – about 600 – will be allotted for this operation, will be assembled on aerodromes in the Athens area. The first sortie will probably carry parachute troops only. Further sorties will be concerned with the transport of the air landing contingent, equipment and supplies, and will probably include aircraft towing gliders . . . the invading force will consist of some 30 to 35,000 men, of which some 12,000 will be the parachute landing contingent, and 10,000 will be transported by sea . . . Orders have been issued that Suda Bay is not to be mined, nor will Cretan aerodromes be destroyed, so as not to interfere with the operation intended.

OL 2/302 was an almost comprehensive guide to Operation Merkur, one of the most complete pieces of timely intelligence ever to fall into the hands of an enemy. It revealed the timing of the attack, the objectives and the strength and composition of the attacking force. Moreover, as the success of Merkur depended on surprise – as all airborne operations must do – the revelation of the operation order to General Freyberg was particularly damaging.

And yet OL 2/302 did not quite tell the whole story. It did not specify which units would land where, an important omission. As we now know, the 3rd Parachute Regiment was to land at the east of the island, the 2nd in the centre and the Assault Regiment to deplane on Maleme airstrip, at the western end, after it had been captured by the 1st Parachute Regiment. This was vital information but it was either not in the raw Enigma intercepts or was omitted from the intercepted version sent to Crete. Bletchley’s policy was not to release raw decrypts, on the grounds that they were often incomprehensible, and even Winston Churchill, who initially insisted on seeing the signals just as they were decrypted, was forced to accept that Bletchley knew better.

Had the raw decrypts revealed which units were to land where, Freyberg might have conducted the battle differently. He might have concentrated more of his available strength at Maleme and thus denied the airfield to the enemy, in which case Germany would certainly have lost the Battle of Crete. On the other hand, he might not. Freyberg was not fully let into the Enigma – properly speaking the Ultra – secret. Few commanders were. The Ultra system allowed only very senior officers, usually theatre commanders, in this case General Wavell in Cairo, to know that German signals were being decrypted in real time. They were instructed to tell subordinates that certain intelligence was particularly reliable – ‘Special’ and ‘Very Special Intelligence’ – but to explain its worth by reference to a supposed agent inside enemy headquarters. Small cells of Ultra-cleared officers handled the material in operational zones but were sworn to complete secrecy. Freyberg, not being in on the secret, was merely told the agent story and forbidden to discuss OL material with anyone else. It was for him, an intellectually unselfconfident man, an unsettling restriction. Instead of being able to discuss his concerns with his close subordinates, his normal method, he was forced to bottle up his Ultra knowledge.

Worse, there is no doubt that he misunderstood what he had been told. He was misled by the confusion caused by references to the 22nd Air-Landing Division, the 5th Mountain Division and the attached regiment of the 6th Mountain Division, in signals OL 2167 of 6 May and OL 2168 of 7 May, to believe that the non-parachute element of the force was much larger than it was. He was also misled, by the references to shipping, to believe that he was faced with a seaborne landing as well as an airborne landing, perhaps simultaneously and perhaps with the seaborne element outnumbering the airborne element. He perhaps should be forgiven, as his son has loyally argued in retrospect.

Ralph Bennett, the authoritative historian of the Ultra system and himself a wartime Bletchley analyst, persuasively puts it thus:

[Freyberg] had known nothing of Ultra until Wavell appointed him to command in Crete [on 29 April, exactly three weeks before the battle began], and so he was quite without experience in interpreting it. Yet almost at once he was compelled by events to make operational decisions in the light of it, without the benefit of a second opinion or any advice whatever [Group Captain Beamish, the Ultra intermediary on Crete, was not in the chain of command]. [Moreover] in the whole course of history no island had ever been captured except from the sea. The only evidence that the new airborne arm could overpower ground defences consisted of [the evidence from Eben Emael and associated minor operations]. The first parachute battalions in the British army would not be formed for another six months. Finally, the fact that the Royal Navy’s command of the Mediterranean was being seriously challenged for the first time since Nelson’s victory over the French in Aboukir Bay in 1798 was in itself enough to reinforce fears of attack by the traditional means . . . in spite of Ultra, [Freyberg’s] apprehension of danger from the sea can only be faulted by an abuse of hindsight.

Yet, when all allowances are made, Ultra did warn that the Germans were going to assault Crete with thousands of airborne troops; the garrison, though disorganised by its Greek ordeal, was not at a disadvantage of numbers (42,460 British Commonwealth and Greek troops to 22,040 German). The seaborne landing did not materialise; but Crete was lost. What went wrong?

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